non-fiction



Photo of the Hotel Chelsea by Christopher Macsurak used under a Creative Commons license.

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, 2010).
In 1967, at the age of 21, Smith left her family’s home in rural New Jersey and moved to New York City to find a new life.  She found herself hungry, lonely, jobless and poor, but she also found a friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, and the two were soon living together in Brooklyn, eking out a living as artists – if not quite starving, then not far from it.  Their lives and careers slowly progressed, and they moved to Manhattan (first to the Hotel Chelsea) and ran in circles with the likes of William Burroughs and Sam Shepherd and Janis Joplin and Allen Ginsburg, and the world was still young. Eventually they become known as Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, but this memoir is about those days before they were famous, and it captures New York at an epic moment four decades now past.  Above all, it is a elegy for Mapplethorpe, who died in 1989.

Here is Smith’s site. Here is Wikipedia’s page about her. Smith talked about the book on NPR’s Fresh Air. It won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Spinner has an excerpt. Gerry posts some as well. And here is an excerpt accompanied by a mariachi band. Janet Maslin (New York Times) says it captures a moment when Smith and Mapplethorpe were young, inseparable, perfectly bohemian and completely unknown. Edmund White (The Guardian) says it brings together all the elements that made New York so exciting in the 1970s. Laura Miller (Salon) says it’s utterly lacking in irony or sophisticated cynicism. Elizabeth Hand (Washington Post) says Smith evokes Manhattan’s last great bohemian age so precisely that one can smell the Nescafé boiling on a hot plate. Tom Carson (New York Times) calls it the most spellbinding and diverting portrait of funky-but-chic New York in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that any alumnus has committed to print. Gina Myers (Frontier Psychiatrist) says its New York is one where everyone seems to be somebody. Carmela Ciuraru (San Francisco Chronicle) calls it one of the best memoirs of recent years: inspiring, sad, wise and beautifully written. Kate Neary (The Thrill of the Chaise) finished it in tears. Crystal was in tears before the first chapter. Christian Williams (The A.V. Club) says it’s rife with snapshots of ‘70s New York cool at its grittiest and most seductive. Roy Edroso (The Village Voice) says it pulls you in, like with Smith’s clarinet experiments, not so much because the thing is well-played but by the force of devotional fervor. Spacebeer says it will melt even the coldest of hearts. Luigi Scacciante recommends it to those interested in art or love or the human condition. Emily Temple (Flavorwire) says Smith is incredibly successful at immersing the reader in a New York where Allen Ginsburg buys you sandwiches and you move to sit in Andy Warhol’s still-warm chair. Nick Kent (The Sunday Times) says Smith tells her story with honesty and elegance. rundangerously calls it one of the best memoirs he has read. Greg Milner (Bookforum) says it’s a vivid portrayal of a bygone New York that could support a countercultural artistic firmament. Michael Horovitz (The Telegraph) calls it a refreshingly clear-eyed chronicle of a counterculture often over-mythologised. But teadevotee says it’s not so much a story as Smith’s contribution to her own myth.  Elizabeth Periale (xoxoxoe) notes that Smith has a real sense of New York history. Luke Storms collected the artists mentioned by Smith. Jude Rogers (New Statesman) says it’s essentially a love story. Beth Fish calls it surprisingly tender and moving. Erin Lee Carr gleaned some things. Lee Wind felt more enlightened after reading it, but wasn’t sure how. Mac is still catching up to Smith. Kat says it offers a sneak peek into the inaccessible, narcissistic, pretentious and closed world of popular art, music and words. Adrian McKinty says Smith’s prose is spare and beautiful and her narrative is full of compassion, wonderful details, and humour. Steve A. calls it pure poetry. Tracy Seeley read it on a bus and walked all the way home. Akshay Kapur couldn’t relate to her hardship. John Francisconi calls it a work of alchemy. Stuart Weibel can’t recall a finer testament to love and devotion. Bill regretted misunderstanding what was going on at CBGB’s. Maria Hatling doesn’t want it to end. Nataliejill then heard her music for the first time. Olivia Antsis created a companion blog to the book, and gives (e.g.) context for some of the places mentioned. You can see Smith read from the book here and here. John Siddique posts Smith’s interview on KRCW’s Bookworm show. Here she is on PBS Newshour and interviewed by Charlie Rose. David Ward interviewed her at the National Portrait Gallery in December, 2010. David Pescovitz (Boing Boing) found video of Smith performing in 1976. Angela Carone talked to DJ Claire, who created a sort of soundtrack for the book. Laura Bradley (AnOther) reports that the Hotel Chelsea has been sold and will be closed for a year. Rolling Stone says Smith is writing a sequel.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo by sizumaru used under a Creative Commons license.

Kate T. Williamson, A Year in Japan (Princeton Architectural Press, 2006).
During a year in Kyoto, Williamson kept a sort of artist’s journal, which she has turned into this book.  Her watercolors are full of details that grabbed her attention. Williamson has a designer’s eye for the telling detail, be it food, clothing or anything else.  (N.B. — The above is not one of her drawings.)

Williamson’s site will give you a sense of her work. And here’s a slideshow of some of her illustrations. Mark Flanagan (About.com) calls Williamson’s watercolors simple and playful, and infused with a keen attention to light and color. Heather says it has the intimate feeling of a diary. Vanessa Raney (guttergeek) thought the illustrations were skillful but the descriptions weak. Charlie Dickinson (Hackwriters.com) says it sumptuously illustrates what’s compellingly different about Japan. Max Nikoolkan says its last focus become the uniqueness and brevity of everyday Japanese life. Julia Rothman says it tells you all the little, more important things you could never learn in a travel guide. Mary Ann Moore says it’s a reminder to appreciate what is unique and precious about what’s in front of us. Jill (I’m feeling formal) says it’s a beautiful memory of Williamson’s time in Japan, an introduction to aspects of Japanese life, and just fun to look at. JoAnn, who shares some of the illustrations, says: Who knew there was such a thing as an electric rug? Leah Hoelscher was inspired. Miss Lynsey has some favorite illustrations. Rebecca calls it a splendid record of Japan. Rosecrans Baldwin, who suggests the book is as though the love child of Maira Kalman and Kenneth Koch went abroad, interviewed Williamson upon the publication of a subsequent book.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photos of Tokyo by spDuchamp used under a Creative Commons license.

David Mura, Turning Japanese (Anchor Books, 1992).
A memoir of a year in Tokyo, from the perspective of a third-generation Japanese-American writer.  Mura, who grew up in Chicago, was awarded a fellowship to spend a year in Japan with his wife, a white American doctor.  Though Mura perhaps starts with the thought that the trip is a homecoming of sorts, it would be more appropriate to say that sometimes one needs to leave a place to discover one’s relationship with it.  Mura’s transitional status in Japan often makes him a more acute observer than many other foreigners.  Many of his observations are introspective, but there is much of Tokyo here as well.

Here is the author’s site, and here is the Wikipedia page about him. Karl Taro Greenfield (Los Angeles Times) says Mura’s wide-eyed gawk at Tokyo captures some subtle nuances of the Japanese-American experience in Japan. Here is a recent interviewby E. Ethelbert Miller. FWIW, Stephanie Wössner was not satisfied. The author’s site has a short excerpt from Chapter 1. Tadaaki Hiruki collected favorite quotations.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo by NatalieTracy used under a Creative Commons license.

Jan Morris, Sydney (Random House, 1992).
If you were to want to read one book to get an overview of the history, character and culture of Sydney, you could do worse than to turn to this one. There is only a smattering of her own experiences here; instead, the greater part of it is her synthesis of other people’s histories.  As one reviewer below says, it is as if Morris rented an apartment with a view of Sydney Harbor, visited the local library and read up on the city, and then dutifully compiled that work into a book. The result is solid enough, if not particularly sweet or filling.

Here is Wikipedia on Jan Morris. Don George profiled her for Salon in 1999. More recently, she remarried. Carolyn See (Los Angeles Times) calls the book a competent, chronological, amusing, mannerly, dutiful account of one of the most beautiful and enchanting cities in the world. Brett is truly and madly in love with the book. Morris says she detested Sydney when she first went there in the early 1960s. In an interview with Leo Lerman in The Paris Review in 1997, Morris talked about why she wrote the book. In an interesting exchange, she also suggests that she didn’t quite get to the bottom of the city. Another essay about Sydney appears in her 2005 collection, The World. Footless Crow interviewed Morris a few months ago.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of a painting by Colleen Wallace and posted by Ben Lawson used under a Creative Commons license.

Howard Morphy, Aboriginal Art (Phaidon, 1998).
A lovely and comprehensive survey of Australian aboriginal art, replete with many and terrific color plates.  From ancient rock art to post-modern art (including a reworking of Van Gogh’s room in Arles), Morphy, whose own focus has been on the people and art of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territories, explains the significance and context of different tradition, old and new, from around the continent. An excellent introduction to the subject.

Here is Morphy’s page at the Australian National University. David Cossey says the books is thoroughly researched, authoritative, and written with elegance, an essential reference work for scholars and lay readers alike. David Betz calls it the best read on the ideas behind Aboriginal art practice (and has other interesting links). This site calls it the best single book on the topic of Aboriginal art and culture. Answers.com calls it an authoritative survey. It was one of Alex Dally MacFarlane’s favorite books of 2010. Will Owen saw the painting Karrku Jukurrpa this summer at the Australian Embassy in Washington, D.C.; he has a picture and quotes Morphy’s explanation, and more. This essay echoes some of the book (but is not representative of it). Here is Morphy on the Yolngu art of Charlie Matjuwi Burarrwanga and Peter Datjin Burarrwanga. Felicia R. Lee (The New York Times) writes about a discovery Morphy made in Hamilton, New York. Not enough time to read Morphy’s book? Try this introduction to the subject by Mick Steele.

Buy it a Half.com (I did).


Photo of Chester County by Lobberich used under a Creative Commons license.

Witold Rybczynski, Last Harvest (Scribner, 2007).
The author, an architecture critic who teaches at Penn, tells the story of the creation of New Daleville, a residential subdivision in an exurb of Philadelphia, from the purchase of land through design and building to the arrival of the first residents. Rybczynski was given terrific access, and he has used it to tell an engrossing story about how farmland gets transmogrified into homes. New Daleville was designed in a new, “neotraditional” style, so this account will appeal to fans of the new urbanism. New Daleville is located in Cochranville, Chester County, about 45 miles west of Philadelphia and half that distance northwest of Wilmington, Delaware. This is at once a story of what happened to a very specific place, and an explanation of what happens all over the country.

For more on Rybczynski, here are Wikipedia, his own site, his blog, and his bio at Penn. He was given the Vincent J. Scully Prize by the National Building Museum. Take a look at the book on Google Books. On Slate, Rybczynski offered this slideshow of New Daleville’s evolution. Penelope Green (The New York Times) gives a good sense of how the book unfolds. Brendan Crain (Where) says it’s enlightening if you want to understand why today’s suburban developments look the way they do. Crain interviewed Rynczynski as well. Rob Goodspeed sees omissions, but calls it complex, compelling and accessible. Patrick D. Hazard (Broad Street Review) appreciated the explanation of the tasks of preparing land for builders to use (or here). John Cruz says it gives a good view of why these kinds of developments are built. Pratik Mhatre calls it easy, refreshing, and non-polemical. Peter Holland says it’s an easy read that integrates the complexities of the development process (.pdf). Dorn Townsend calls it a masterly story of entrepreneurship. Chris Bradford sees relevance to Austin. Henry Petroski (The New York Sun) calls it a primer on the aesthetic, economic, historical, physical, political, psychological, and structural aspects of the business of real estate. Andrew Ferguson (The Wall Street Journal) lauds Rybczynski’s storytelling. Mike says it’s a fun read. One nameless but conservation-minded blogger says it’s as much about the characters as it is about the place. It softened Brasilliant’s strong opinions against “neotraditional” planning. Joshua Kim gives it an A. Tom Lindmark calls it a wonderful little book. Listen or read this interview with NPR’s Debbie Elliott. Watch Rybczynski talk to BusinessWeek’s Diane Brady. Listen to his appearance on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show. Here’s the builder’s page. Tim Halbur says the development is failing. Decide for yourself: To find real estate listings in the development, go to Zillow and search for “415 Wrigley Blvd, Cochranville, PA,” which is in the middle of what Zillow calls Daleville.

Buy it at Half.com.


Photo of Heathrow by Sheree Zielke used under a Creative Commons license.

Alain de Botton, A Week at the Airport (Vintage, 2010).
The owners of the new Terminal 5  at Heathrow invited de Botton to spend a week at the airport as Writer-In-Residence. The result was this delightful little book — more of an essay, really, with lovely pictures by Richard Baker.  An ideal time to start reading it is about two hours before landing on a flight into Heathrow, or you wait another hour you might be able to finish it while standing in the passport control line, like I did.

The author’s site offers three excerpts. Here is his CV. Here’s his Wikipedia entry. Dan Milmo (The Guardian) reported on de Botton’s assignment. Check it out on Google Books, or here’s an excerpt in The Sunday Times. Boyd Tonkin (The Independent) says banality and sublimity circle in a perpetual holding pattern. Dan Hill enjoyed it hugely in a holding pattern above Sydney. Kerri Shadid says it has a magical touch of questioning human behavior and a poetic use of words. Donna Marchetti calls it a clever, quirky book. Geoff Nicholson says a few hours with de Botton is time well spent. Dwight Garner says it’s as intense as a volume of poems. Kirk LaPointe says it teems with beauty. Rob Verger (Boston Globe) says it isn’t always gripping. Karen calls it delightful, reflective and thought-provoking. Helen Gallagher says it explores the airport as a “non-place.” Jessica Holland (The Guardian) says it’s as perky as a stewardess. Frank Bures interviewed de Botton. Daniel Trilling interviewed him for the New Statesman. Watch this clip of him talking to The Daily Mail. Listen to him on NPR’s On Point. If Caleb Crain reviewed it, I haven’t seen any sign of the review.

Buy it at Half.com.

Next Page »